IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Mia Bennett
Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. As a political geographer with geospatial skills, she traces, maps, and critiques processes of Arctic frontier-making from the edges of settler colonial states and orbits of space powers like China to the depths of Indigenous lands.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
To me, apocalypse simply means the end of a world rather than the world. There is thus almost always an apocalypse going on somewhere on Earth. In my discipline of geography, scale enters into discussions of apocalypse, too. Worlds can terminate anywhere from the scale of a community to the scale of the planet, or even off-world. One contemporary example of a place arguably facing apocalypse is the Arctic, a region I have researched for over a decade. Anthropogenic climate change is threatening many ice-dependent ways of life. At the same time, one thing often overlooked in elegiac discussions about the Arctic is the incredible adaptability and resilience demonstrated by the many communities and species facing the end of their world.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?
In recent years, I have been working to develop the subfield of critical remote sensing. The subdiscipline scrutinizes the study of Earth from afar, namely with the use of satellites. At CAPAS, I am advancing this research by examining how satellite data affects the way that scientists, the government, and the public each imagine, respond to, and predict catastrophes at a range of scales – from local disasters to planetary climate change. In this work, I also seek to situate satellite imagery within apocalyptic art histories while considering what it means when the doomsday messenger can also directly bring death in the form of satellites (or drones) that can kill. I am carrying out this work by examining satellite imagery, scientific papers, and reports, as well as interviewing scientists and public officials.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
My fellowship project offers an opportunity to bring together my longstanding work on the Arctic with my increasing turn towards satellites. CAPAS provides space for me to think about an area that is supposedly experiencing an ending while reflecting upon the spaceborne instruments responsible for delivering the data behind this message. As a geographer, I also strive for interdisciplinarity, drawing inspiration from both positivist methods (such as geospatial analysis of satellite imagery) and interpretivist methods (which understand the world to be socially constructed). By bringing together humanities scholars, social scientists, and natural scientists, CAPAS builds upon my training in geography by continuing to offer exposure to new and diverse ways of understanding the world, this time through the lens of the apocalypse.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
My first thought was, wow! I’d never heard of such a center that could be both so niche and so wide-ranging. I wondered what kinds of scholars would be drawn to the center, and how they would be approaching the end of the world.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
Thanks to the work of Mark Monmonier and many others, it’s well understood that “all maps lie.” Satellite imagery, contrastingly, is often seen as highly truthful, particularly as its photorealism continues to improve. When we contrast how the media picked apart the fuzzy black-and-white imagery captured by U.S. satellites in the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 while unquestioningly reproducing photos captured by commercial satellites over Ukraine 20 years later, the decline in debates over satellite data becomes evident. As the imagery becomes central to understanding, responding to, and predicting all number of crises and disasters, I hope to shed light both on useful applications of the data, but also its limitations and biases.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
I’m eager to learn from other people’s research into realities and representations of the end of the world, from asteroid strikes to Renaissance art history to the Darién Gap. In the month I’ve been at CAPAS so far, I’ve been struck by the diversity of everyone’s approaches, along with their shared curiosity and good humor in studying the apocalypse.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
Backcountry skis, coconuts, and that special someone.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
One of the best podcasts I’ve ever listened to on the end of the world is Radiolab’s Dinopocalypse Redux, which delves into the geological evidence behind the dinosaur extinction. It blew my mind to learn that by examining the pollen record, scientists were able to roughly determine the month in which the devastating asteroid struck the Earth, even though the exact year remains unknown. That period was sometime between June and July – sometime between the flowering of the lotus and the water lily. Incredible stuff. Scientists picking apart fossilized fish bones came to a similar conclusion regarding the season of the dino-pocalypse: “The Mesozoic terminated in boreal spring.”
I also would recommend Liu Cixin’s widely read trilogy The Three-Body Problem. The scenario it presents in which humans know aliens are planning to attack Earth, but not for 400 years, offers a fascinating thought experiment. How would society react if we knew the world would end, but not for nearly half a millennium?
Finally, the M83 album Saturdays = Youth (2008) hauntingly captures the adolescent sentiment of the world being over. So much lies ahead of you, but at times, that sense of possibility still feels so far away, and every decision seems so fateful. Listening to this nostalgic neon abyss of a record brings me back to those stretched-out times while reminding me that there was, in fact, light at the end of the teenage tunnel.